Whether 2046 is a true sequel to In the Mood for Love—itself a follow-up of sorts to Days of Being Wild—or not, Wong Kar-Wai’s 2004 film has an intricately symbiotic relationship with its predecessor. In the shadow of 2046, In the Mood for Love expands far beyond its almost anecdotal construction and takes on the feeling of a vivid memory. Likewise, however well 2046 works on its own, viewers unfamiliar with the earlier film are missing a crucial piece of the story.

Near the end of In the Mood for Love, Chow Mo-wan, played by the inimitable Tony Leung, leaves Hong Kong for Singapore, having accepted that his relationship with Su Li-zhen, played by a poised Maggie Cheung, can go no further. 2046 catches up with Chow just as he’s about to return to Hong Kong in 1966, perhaps finally ready to move on from the unconsummated love affair he left behind.

Chow, a journalist, processes his feelings about this return (and the women in his life since Su Li-zhen) through his fiction. His new story is science fiction—in it, a man sits on a train leaving 2046, a place where nothing ever changes, where people go to recapture lost time. The actual nature of 2046, both its literal existence within Chow’s story and its metaphorical significance in his own life, is somewhat hard to pin down, though it’s beautifully evocative, nevertheless. Due to a limited budget, the sequences dramatizing Chow’s story are suggestive rather than painstakingly detailed; the rather primitive computer animations of a globe-spanning railway system create an otherworldly mystique even as they fail to look convincing.

Although Chow leaving Singapore is mirrored by his character’s departure from 2046, the latter place can also be understood to represent Hong Kong itself. It’s never mentioned in the film, but the year 2046 will be 49 years after control of Hong Kong was transferred from the British to the Chinese in 1997, which marked the beginning of a 50-year period of self-regulation. The connection between this and the anti-British riots of the ’60s (seen in newsreel footage at the beginning of the film) would surely not go unnoticed by domestic audiences.

But while there is undoubtedly a sociopolitical subtext to this film (Chow’s trip to Cambodia and another character’s hatred of the Japanese are especially suggestive), Chow’s fictional world is more intriguing for the way it parallels his emotional life. We are told that nobody ever leaves 2046, and the protagonist’s seemingly unending train ride away is a poignant metaphor for Chow’s inability to let go of his past. Throughout, we also see Chow working his numerous lovers into the story, cast as androids aboard the train, whose responses have become delayed after years of operation.

Chow is inspired to begin writing the story after a one-night stand with a nightclub singer, Lulu (Carina Lau), whose hotel room number, 2046, reminds him of Su Li-zhen. The number’s significance is revealed near the end of the film, but viewers with exceptional memories will recall this number from In the Mood for Love as the hotel room where Chow and Su Li-zhen worked on a martial-arts story together. After Lulu is stabbed by a jealous ex-lover, Chow asks the owner if he can move into the room. Chow becomes settled in the adjacent room, 2047, while 2046 is being cleaned out.

Chow populates his story with android versions of Lulu and of Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of the hotel’s owner, who’s in love with a Japanese man (the horror!). Chow gets close to Jing-wen at first by helping her send and receive letters from her lover, and then even more so when they begin to write together, in a way that clearly echoes his collaboration with Su Li-Zhen. Although Maggie Cheung’s character from the previous film is only referred to rarely, and usually obliquely, appearing only in flashbacks, her conspicuous absence explains Chow’s behavior—his desperate, empty affairs devoid of real connection and his deep immersion in writing.

The saucy cabaret girl Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi, at her most alluring) couldn’t be any more different from Su Li-zhen, but here, too, Chow keeps his distance by paying her for every night of fun. Like nearly every other character in this film, she’s nursing a broken heart and has her own way of dealing with the pain. Where In the Mood for Love was deeply focused on just two characters, 2046 opens outward with an ensemble of women, each of whom, while embodying some part of Chow’s past, is also a fully realized character.

Visually, the film out-does all of the director’s past efforts. Energetic yet tightly controlled, the images of Wong’s longtime collaborator Christopher Doyle and two other cinematographers, Kwan Pun-leung and Lai Yiu-fai, provoke anxiety through partially obscured, claustrophobic shots in the hotel’s cramped hallways and then evoke wonder in colorful sci-fi sequences and hypnotic slow-motion shots. All the pushed-down and sublimated feelings of In the Mood for Love explode here, in Wong’s dreamiest, sexiest film. The pair represent the apex of the director’s career, the period when the promise of his early work truly paid off.

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